COVID-19 has revealed much about who we are as people and as a society. Much of it is positive and hopeful, including the selfless contributions essential frontline workers are making every day to keep us afloat.
Because of ageism and ableism, we didn’t act
COVID-19 has also revealed ugly realities about how we view and treat those who are most vulnerable. This is particularly true for older adults and people with disabilities. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that early on, when there was time to act, some countries deemed the coronavirus threat “less worthy of the best efforts to contain it” because the most affected were older adults.
COVID-19 has demonstrated that ageism and ableism are both alive and well.
We need look no further than our elder care facilities. Residents in these facilities currently make up 1 in 5 COVID-19 deaths. Despite the fact that they continue to be hot spots for the spread of the virus, nursing homes still lack the basic testing capabilities, personnel, and personal protection equipment needed to save lives and contain the disease. Deaths in these facilities are surging even as they begin to plateau in other settings and segments of the population.
Many older adults and people with disabilities depend on home care services for their basic daily needs. The shortage of caregivers and inadequate caregiver support—which are only heightened by this crisis—further endanger their wellbeing.
Entrenched ageism is baked into our health care services
We see ageism and ableism in the way health care services are designed, delivered, and funded in this country. Louise Aronson, a geriatrician at the University of San Francisco, recently noted in the Atlantic that despite the largest systemwide mobilization that she’s seen in her career, “elder-specific needs and medical science aren’t being adequately addressed” because “entrenched and pervasive ageism…is baked into how the field approaches education, research, and the most fundamental procedures, structures, and policies.”
Ageism and ableism are alive and well in the ongoing public debate over whether the lives of older adults and people with disabilities are worth saving in the face of COVID-19. 70 million Americans are 60 or over and 13% have a disability. Taken together, they make up at least a third of the population.
If I’m a senior or have a disability, will I get care?
San Francisco disabled activist and author Alice Wong, voices the concerns of many older adults and people with disabilities when she says, “Were I to contract coronavirus, I imagine a doctor might read my chart, look at me, and think I’m a waste of their efforts and precious resources…”
After the State of California posted ethical guidelines for care on April 19, Mallory Moench reported that over sixty senior and disability rights organizations sent two letters to Governor Newsom and Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency. Arguing that guidelines “would discriminate against the elderly and disabled if resources ran low,” the organizations urged the state to avoid making decisions based on life expectancy.”
“In a time of innovation, knowledge and opportunity,” notes Anne Hinton, SF Tech Council co-chair and former executive director of the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services, “our collective resources and actions should be centered on keeping us safe and alive, not on who’s expendable.”
On April 23, the California Department of Public Health re-posted its guidelines, indicating they are in draft form and noting that “new guidelines will be issued soon.”
Digital access is no longer a privilege, it’s a basic right
Finally, we see ageism and ableism in the digital divide, a divide which disproportionately impacts low-income older adults and people with disabilities. Without broadband access, devices such as smartphones, and basic digital literacy, elderly and disabled people are less able to get the services and connection they need to weather the wide-ranging issues they face while sheltering-in-place.
From access to healthcare and financial services to isolation and loneliness, the digital divide is exacerbating already serious problems. COVID-19 shows us that digital access is no longer a privilege, it’s a basic right.
We can do something!
Where can we start? Just as we are working to make sure that every K-12 student has a device and is connected, low-income seniors and people with disabilities deserve the same attention: a free device along with broadband access and basic digital literacy training.
In order to make this happen, especially with no clear end to the pandemic, resources and technical assistance to build technology capacity in organizations along with affordable internet services, access to devices, digital literacy training, and remote tech support are all urgently needed.
Discrimination and prejudice based on age and ability have no place in our society. This is the time to change not only attitudes, but policies and structures to ensure that we can all create a better future, stronger and together.
The San Francisco Tech Council is dedicated to digital inclusion for older adults and adults with disabilities. Our membership consists of not for profit and for profit businesses, government and educational institutions as well as older adults and adults with disabilities.
Revised May 1, 2020